Sunday, July 23, 2017


Yesterday we had our shinsuishiki, or boat launching on the Nagara River in Gifu City. It was the day after Nasu san's 86th birthday. The host was the Ukai Museum. In accordance with local tradition, we capsized the boat three times. It is believed in this area that if you do this at launch the boat will never capsize again. I have a camera glitch and can't download images (plus I was in the thick of the launching) but if you visit my friend Masashi Kutsuwa's Flicker page you can see images and a video of us actually rolling the boat. I think we got carried away and rolled it four times...

I don't think the boat leaked a drop, but it was hard to tell since we poured some sake into it.

I return home on the 26th and will sort out my computer issues and put up several blog posts about the launching, a day we spent measuring historic boats, and a visit to the Tenryu River where a company does white water trips in traditional wooden boats.

Stay tuned,


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Kansei - Finished

We finished the boat yesterday. Today I am going in to make a traditional bailer and then we are ready for the launching next Saturday, which I will blog about probably after I return home. All photographs in this post were taken by Masashi Kutsuwa, furniture instructor at Gifu Academy where we built the boat.
Last job was caulking the boat. In Japan boats are caulked from the inside, using the inner bark of the cypress tree, a product called makihada. Nasu has typical caulking irons but his are bent.

We made no specific caulking bevel beforehand, instead we used a blunt iron to pound a seam open about 1/16th of an inch. We pounded the material in and probably opened the seam to an 1/8".

A look at the joint between the bottom, side and transom.

A view of the finished boat from the bow. The small beams are temporary, placed by fishermen when the boat is not in use to hold its shape. The single permanent beam is not enough but cormorant fishermen need an open boat because they are moving around.

The stern deck end got wrapped in copper.

Final measurements of the boat are 42-feet length overall, with a 4-foot beam. About 900 nails at our final count.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Finishing the Hull

Back at it after our week in Okinawa. The heat followed us; today's its hovering around the high-90s, and I called it quits at noon, the first Saturday in four weeks we only worked a half day.

We got the last deck, called the noseude, fitted and fastened, first with glue and then nails.

We left the bottom rough so it will be a good habitat for spiders, considered the emissaries of the gods. We had our first spider move in today.

A very tricky angle to drill the hole and drive nails down through the top of the deck and into the transom. My gauge is based on the type Nasu san uses to line things up.

Nasu san quickly roughed out plugs again with his axe, finding the right sized mortise to drop them in so we could glue and hammer them into place. He rejected a box of plugs Masashi san, furniture instructor, machined on the table saw to the proper angle and taper. In truth Nasu san may be able to make them just as quickly with his axe.

Nasu san on the stern deck marking it for final trimming.

Photo by Marc Bauer
Note the shape of the deck end and the supporting plank underneath. We've rough planed the top two planks with the boat upright, but next we took the stones out and removed the props.

Photo by Marc Bauer
The first job after rolling the boat on its side was to plane the rest of the outside of the hull, first rough planing and then finish planing, all by hand. We revealed just two nails, which we ground down with a grinder and will fill with putty.  Nasu san uses regular window glazers putty on his boats.

Photo by Marc Bauer
We were also able to put six nails through the bottom and into each transom. We also trimmed the bottom edge of the planking, first using an adze, then an electric plane, then finally hand planes. After this shot was taken we rolled the boat on the other side and finished planing the hull.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Sabani Race-Okinawa

Readers of this blog can return to its very first posts to learn about my apprenticeship in 2009/2010 with one of the last three builders of sabani, the traditional fishing boat of Okinawa. I built an eight meter sabani with Mr. Ryujin Shimojo on Iejima, one of the smallest of the Okinawan islands. An annual race brings together several dozen teams in an twenty-five mile open water race from Zamami Island to the capitol city of Naha. This year was the 18th race, and I finally got to see it. We took a break from the ukaibune project in Mino and my wife and I, along with Marc and his family, flew to Okinawa and took the ferry to Zamami.
Zamami Island is a stunningly beautiful place and a wonderful venue for the start of a race which to me represents Japan's first real revival of wooden boatbuilding. Since teams began forming twenty years ago the last three traditional boatbuilders were brought out of retirement to build racing boats. In the case of my teacher, he hadn't built a sabani in over forty years. 

For me it was a seven-year wait to finally see this race. The boat I built was taken to a Tokyo museum upon completion, but it returned to Okinawa to participate in the race this year, so we made it back together, so to speak.

Thirty-six boats participated in this year's race. Twenty used outriggers, something the Okinawans did not use, but these boats are notoriously difficult to sail, so teams begin with outriggers and practice with the hope of being able to someday sail and race without them.

The fleet lined up on the beach before the start.

Every single entrant is required to have a chase boat. Racers must complete the course in seven hours, otherwise their chase boat tows them in. This year the fleet faced headwinds, and the region's notorious currents simply cannot be paddled against, so only three boats finished within seven hours. The second place boat was an all-woman crew from Iriomote Island competing in their first race.

I was on the chase boat following the eventual winner, the boat from Kaisou, owned and skippered by Mr. Yoji Mori. He is famous for his long-distance voyaging in sabani, and in fact his team left the next day for an inter-island passage. I am happy to say several new boats appeared for the race. Mori san has sponsored a young builder, and one of the three older builders is still active and has an apprentice.

A view from the hill of the beach and bay where the race starts. Zamami Island consists of a main town of Zamami and two smaller hamlets.

When I built a sabani in 2010 my teacher said no one alive had used the foresail with these boats. I don't know if this is a recent trend but many of the boats in this years race flew a small sail on a mast canted forward at the bow.

The outrigger in the foreground is made from an enormous piece of bamboo, almost six inches in diameter, plugged with wood at either end.

We arrived three days early and enjoyed spectacular snorkeling.

A small pre-race event saw the fleet race from Zamami harbor to the starting beach. I was able to photograph from two different points in the race, here right after the start...

...and right before the finish where the boats passed through a narrow channel between islands. This was a brand new boat launched the week before.

Fashioning the Decks

Looking at the bow of the boat. Here a short pair of planks act as an extension of the top plank to support the forward deck. The basket containing firewood, used to attract fish, sets in a hole in this deck.

Our top plank, called the koberi, runs past the boat aft forming the support for the aft deck. This is the smaller of the two decks on these boats.

Barely visible is a string Nasu ran to find the height of the forward deck. He attached it to a known point at the sheer at his first station and then measures a memorized height where the string passes the transom.

These are the umbrella nails used to fasten our planks to the transoms, as well as the garboard to the bottom. The heads are angled which nicely matches the slope of the planking. As far as I know this is the only region in Japan where boatbuilders used this type of nail.

Satoshi Koyama, a furniture student at Gifu Academy, helps Nasu san with the layout of the planks aft.

Here I am fitting the forward deck to the top of the transom using a narrow saw. The deck consists of two planks edge-nailed together at a slight angle. 

Nasu san told us to keep the bottom of the deck rough in order to provide a good environment for spiders, which he says are the emissaries of the river god. We also left the interior of the plank rough where it extends forward of the transom. We left for a week in Okinawa to see the annual sabani race (see next post) and while we were gone Nasu san's daughter and mother had a makihada workshop, showing people how to make traditional boat caulking from the inner bark of the maki tree. This link to the Whole Wasen Catalog has photos and explanation. I am very excited about this website, made by one of the members of the Wasen Network, a mailing list I helped to form, hopes to become a clearinghouse for information about traditional Japanese boatbuilding.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Last Plank Before Vacation

We have two more days of work before we leave for a week in Okinawa. I am finally going to see the annual open ocean sabani race from Zamami Island to the capitol city of Naha. If you go back to the very beginning of this blog you can read about the boat I built with one of Okinawa's last traditional boatbuilders. I will get to finally see that boat in the water.
Here on the cormorant fishing boat, we got the last plank fitted on the hull. The sheer plank has a more complex scarf joint with a step in the middle. Wouldn't you know but I cut the very last one of four slightly off, but in fact its an easy mistake to fix by inserting a pair of wedges in the gap.

In the past my teachers have always wedged this type of joint. Its must faster to make and fit since the pair of wedges makes up the difference. In this case I was about 3/16th of an inch off. Here is the view from outside after we had glued the scarf and clamped the plank on with dogs. 

And the view from inside. As soon as the glue dried I cut the wedges flush.

The joint in the sheer strake forward is for a plank extension that will support the forward deck. We did not do this aft, where our planks just ran long as deck supports. I assumed this was done to facilitate repair, because the forward deck supports a heavy davit for the basket carrying the fire used to attract the fish. I asked Nasu san and he said this was perhaps the most fragile part of the boat and one he has repaired often, but in the end he said simply that this was the way his father did it, and that was reason enough.

Nasu san attached a batten and ran a string to a point on the sheer plank and showed us how he would calculate the rise in the extension.

We went to watch cormorant fishing in Seki. Earlier we had watched the six fishermen in the big city of Gifu, by far the most well-known sightseeing spot, but Seki was wonderful: just three fishermen but our tour boat could get very close, and the setting is rural and quiet, far from the city lights.

The fishermen swing the fire basket from side to side, and this is when the strain sometimes breaks the forward plank.

Afterwards the senior fisherman invited us home to his 350-year old house. He is an 18th generation cormorant fisherman (you read that right), the longest such lineage in Japan. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Planking the Hull

Time has slipped by plus I had a computer glitch that kept me from posting. The hull is almost completely planked now. I will throw up some photos here with captions.

We made a huge push at the start of this project, propelled by our teacher's insistence we couldn't finish this boat before mid-August (our return flights are the end of July!). Its been long days, six days a week, but we've almost planked the hull. Here you see our second strake nailed on. The cormorant boats have transoms bow and stern.

A section of the third strake, propped in place ready for scribing. We rough cut with a circular saw, then prop the plank in place and run a series of saws through the seam in order to make it fit with the adjacent plank. This is a technique central to Japanese boatbuilding.

Hard to see, but I am making the final pass at the transom with the saw running through the seam. I will try to create a blog post that illustrates that more clearly.

Another shot of the third strake fitted. Then come the edge nails, fastening the plank to the one below. Nailing consumes a huge proportion of our time.

Three strakes on, and this view shows the stone weights our teacher uses to help hold the structure in place, along with four stout props overhead.

Final strake going on...

...and you get an idea of its true shape. These extended planks support decks bow and stern.

The three planks that form each of our top strakes uses a slightly different (and more difficult) scarf joint. The vertical plugs you see fill the mortises of our edge nails.

Now that we are getting closer to doing final finish work on the boat Nasu san took us to Seki City to see their fleet of cormorant boats. He wanted us to see the final product and get a feel for these details.